Into the chaotic mess of the divided kingdoms came the prophets. These were not people with crystal balls claiming to “see” into the future (usually for a fee), as noted earlier, but rather spokespersons and advocates deeply involved in the relationship between the people of Israel (or in modern terms, people of faith) and their God.
In ancient Hebrew the word “prophet” can be transliterated as navi, meaning someone into whose mouth God puts words. The Hebrew for prophet finds its way into the name of the Hebrew Bible, Tanak for Torah (law), Nevi’im (prophets) and Ketuvim (writings).
Note that all the historical books we have finished reviewing are included as Nevi’im. Obviously, many of the judges present prophetic elements, as I noted in the case of Samuel; also, Judaism considered a variety of other figures as prophetic.
The origin of the English word for prophet is closer to the modern faith understanding of the term; it comes from the Greek prophetes, or advocate. The biblical prophet is both a communicator of God’s vision and an advocate for God before us, particularly when we are losing our way. The prophet is God’s gadfly.
Judges and kings were powerful political and military figures, who acted with faith in Elohim, the law and the covenant. However, the prophet was God's reminder of the point of all the ruling, struggling and striving.
Prophets did not derive authority to speak from anything but a faith understanding that God was compelling them to do so. Moreover, the prophets did not represent the prevailing view of their society, much less the opinion of those appointed to power, even with divine ordinance to rule.
The story of the prophets is that of individual people who went largely unheard and disbelieved by their peers and contemporaries. Their inclusion in the collection of books “set apart,” or holy, such as the Bible collection, is a testament to a particularly acute stroke of rabbinical wisdom: God sometimes speaks through messengers we would rather not hear, but that is no reason to silence or exclude their words.
Traditionally, the prophets—each of whom has a biblical book attributed to him—are divided into major and minor. The original reason for calling them one or the other was the length of their writings.
The major (or longer) prophets are the best well known: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. The Bible also has a beautiful book called Lamentations attributed to Jeremiah but most likely not his. The minor (or shorter) prophets are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.
The Talmud, the Jewish post-biblical compilation of rabbinical wisdom, offers a list of 48 prophets.
These include: the patriarchs Abraham through Moses; some of the judges; several prophets who have no biblical book, such as Nathan (who confronted David about his murderous affair with Bathsheba); Elijah (found in the historical books and often mentioned in the gospels) and his homonym Elisha; and, in addition to the major and minor biblical author-prophets, a good number of other individuals.
The Talmud is advanced for its time in recognizing seven prophetesses, Miriam (sister of Moses), Deborah (the judge), Hannah (the mother of Samuel and notably a foreseer), Abigail (wife of Nabal, later of David, advocate against revenge), Huldah (the namesake of one of the gates of Jerusalem, also see 2 Kings 22:13-16), Esther (Jewish queen of Persia whose story is at the core of the feast of Purim) and Sarah (wife of Abraham).
In the next few posts we will explore two of the prophets, just enough to whet the appetite of the reader to explore more on his or her own. In so doing, the reader is commended to keep in mind that the prophets principally emerged at the time of the monarchy (united and divided kingdoms) and the Babylonian-Persian captivity. They will be speaking to the people of Israel in the context of strife, impending catastrophe and eventual subjugation.
Their message goes beyond history or soothsaying, it aims to confront religious complacency, hypocrisy and unfaithfulness to God. Those who embrace faith are always especially in need of gadfly prophets to shake things up a little.